The stone-crab season that opens Sunday may be one of the most important in Florida Keys commercial-fishing history.
The Category 4 Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10 delivered what is expected to a devastating blow to the Keys spiny lobster harvest only about a month into the most economically important season for the commercial fleet.
Many lobster trappers reported losing anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of their traps, said Gary Graves, manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon.
“We know the hurricane chased the lobster to the west,” Graves said Friday. “From what I’m hearing, there’s not much happening from Big Pine Key north. For a lot of guys, the lobster season may be pretty much over.”
“Now we’re hoping for a good [stone] crab season to carry everyone over until next lobster season,” Graves said.
Marine agent Shelly Krueger of the Monroe County Extension Office said she knows one fisherman “who says he’s now working three jobs.”
“He’s repairing his house that had three feet of water, looking for his lobster traps, and trying to get ready for stone-crab season,” Krueger said.
Graves said until Sunday’s first trap pulls are made for the legal-size claws removed from stone crabs, there is no way to know how the season will play out. “The crabs could still be here, or maybe they moved off,” Graves said. “We’ll know in January.”
Krueger said crab fishers are hopeful. “Lobster tend to move around [in severe weather] but stone crabs bury themselves in the mud,” she said.
The seven-month season on harvesting legal-sized stone-crab claws — a unique fishery where the crab is returned to the water alive after a claw is detached, only to regenerate — ends May 15.
Crab claws rank second only to spiny lobster in importance to the Florida Keys commercial fishing industry. All 1,071,544 commercial stone-crab traps in Florida, a number limited by state law, require a state-issued tag.
Nine Florida counties produce stone-crab claws with Monroe County typically catching the most, about 40 percent of the statewide harvest. Virtually all domestic stone-crab claws come from Florida.
Prices vary widely for stone-crab claws, based on the size. At the end of the 2016-17 season, trappers were getting about $19 per pound for “jumbo” claws, while “large” claws were selling for $12 a pound. Retail prices are higher.
According to the most recent records available, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licensed about 1,200 commercial stone-crab fishers statewide, with the Keys accounting for around 390.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206